Written by Ahmad Fathan Aniq

Islam according to its believers, is a perfect religion. Its teachings touch all aspects of life. However, Westerners may look at it from a different perspective. They frequently have misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam. Some stereotypes that are usually addressed to Islam are first, that Islamic teachings tend to create extreme fanaticism. This fanaticism often leads to terrorist actions. Secondly, Islam discriminates against women. They may assume that many prohibitions on women reflect that Islam pays no attention to the violation of human rights. Thirdly, most Muslims live in impoverished countries or in the third world such as Indonesia. Therefore, the Westerners may assume that Muslims are poor people. Fourthly, because of its poverty, the quality of education in the third world countries is not as good as that in western countries. However, it is time for western society to understand Islam and Muslims properly, specifically Muslims in Indonesia, in order not to have stereotypical thoughts about Islam.

Since the 11 September attack on the WTC, Westerners have started to notice Islam and its teachings once more. Is there any relationship between Islamic teachings and many terror acts? Does Islam teach its believers to act coercively to other religious believers? Is Islam an exclusive religion? Such questions have become big questions for them. Therefore, they have started to read many books about Islam. In the USA and some other Western countries, books about Islam have been sold well and have been reprinted several times.

Islam is a peaceful religion. It teaches its believers to respect other believers. No active war is in Islam. Wars are only allowed when Muslims are attacked. In other words, wars are as a defence for Muslims. As regards the many bombing attacks verifiably perpetrated by Muslims, we should not look at them as an attitude of other Muslims generally. They are only acts of certain Muslims with their own background experiences. Muslims who act radically may be in stressed conditions that let them defend themselves. They also may have partial and wrong interpretations of some war verses in al-Qur’an.

Another stereotype of Islam is that Islam discriminates against women. Many rules on women are interpreted as violence on them. This is a wrong understanding about women in Islam. Some teachings, such as wearing a veil, aim to protect women. Most Muslim scholars say that it is highly recommended, however, it is still debatable among others. Islam respects women more than other religions do. It is the religion that gives rights for women to participate in political, economic, and academic lives. In contrast to Westerners’ stereotype on women in Islam, I will say that Islam is a good example of an equal gender society when it is practised properly. Besides all these, we may find some unequal treatments of women Indonesia. For me, these treatments are related more to the heritage of negative Indonesian cultures that position women as second class.

That Muslims are poor is also another stereotype that is addressed to Islam. This assumption appears since most Muslims live in a third-world country. I as a Muslim acknowledge that. This happens perhaps because Muslims more concerned with the hereafter than this world. Islam teaches its believers to make a balance between the world they live in and the preparation for the hereafter. Another factor which causes the backwardness of Muslim countries, is, I think, because of their ignorance in imposing zakat as alms of social taxes. The social tax is not handled well in Muslim countries such as Indonesia. Therefore, one can still find a big gap between the rich and the poor in this country.

The backwardness in economy, however, affects the quality of education. Children in Indonesia, the highest Muslim populated country in the world, still find it difficult to get an education, especially if they are poor. Although the government has applied the obligation of nine years study and has made it free, many schools still take illegal payments from students’ parents. This makes many children who are unable to pay the school fee lose the opportunity to study. Therefore, the educational problem needs a serious commitment to solve it, not only from the government but also from all elements of society.

The main source of these stereotypes about Islam is the news media. On the one hand, the media often broadcasts inaccurate news about Islam. They do not cover both sides. There are many tendencies and interests in spreading news about Islam. On the other hand, western society knows about Islam mainly from the media. Therefore, it is better for western society not to take news about Islam for granted. They should compare news from Muslim media and Western media.

In conclusion, I hope that with this brief information, Westerners will change their stereotypes about Islam. It is not fair to blame each other without really understanding what we are talking about. We should learn about each other’s understanding in order to make us wise in seeing the beautiful life.

Leiden, 16 September 2007